Inflation is raging, a recession is here, my summer internship capstone is due, and all I want to think about is how nice it would be to lay out on a warm sunny beach with the cool water touching my toes. The lyrics from Zac Brown Band come to mind:
Got my toes in the water, ass in the sand Not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand Life is good today Zac Brown Band - Toes
My mind really started racing when I realized that I have a FULL week off between the end of my internship and the start of my second year of business school! Once I learned that my wife could also take that time off work, we were in full scale beach hunting mode. However, as appealing as a potential SoCal beach trip was, we ultimately chose to make a more financially savvy move by doing a staycation in the Bay Area.
A Vacation for My Family Is Like Paying for Three Houses Each Night
With my wife working and me working an internship and going to school, the hardest part about taking a trip is finding the time to go. Amazingly, we had enough time off to plan for up to a three-night stay. I drew up a rough itinerary in my head of what a beach trip could look like:
- Day 1 – Drive to location then relax in the evening and maybe explore a bit
- Day 2 – Beach and Explore
- Day 3 – Beach and Explore
- Day 4 – Something quick in the morning then drive home
As much as I would have loved to go to San Diego, we quickly dismissed the idea as it would take 8-hours of driving time to get there. Once you factor in frequent stops for a toddler, the trip starts looking more like a 10+ hour drive each way. Driving that much for only two days at the beach hardly seemed relaxing so we started looking at alternatives that were closer but still had warmer waters than we’d find here in Northern California. As an alternative I suggested that we look into Santa Barbara instead. We could count on August Ocean temperatures there to still be in the low to mid 60s instead of the frigid upper 50s and the driving time to Santa Barbara is just over five hours which is a lot more manageable for a short trip. As a bonus, the town looks super cool!
We immediately began looking for hotels but were bummed to find most places were booked. The places that were available had daily rates starting at a hefty $280/day. That wasn’t great, but I wasn’t entirely defeated yet. I thought that maybe if we cut some costs from our restaurant budget by packing our meals, we could swing the $840 in hotel costs. Then I remembered our four-legged furry canine friend. Even if we brought our dog with us, it still wouldn’t be acceptable to leave her in a hotel room alone. So, in addition to the hotel costs, we’d also need to pay for boarding. Boarding our dog at a kennel isn’t cheap around here and costs range from $85-100 per day depending on which locations have availability. Furthermore, while we’d only pay for three nights of lodging, the timing of boarding means we’d have to pay for a full four days of boarding.
If lodging and boarding weren’t enough, there’s also our mortgage to consider. Whether or not we spend the night at our house we still need to pay our mortgage. Between all three expenses it would be like paying three mortgages for each night of vacation!
Transportation isn’t cheap and it’s more than just gas
Gas has dropped a bit in price over the last couple of weeks but is still up near $6 per gallon here in California. As expensive as that is, gas prices had very little influence on our choice to do a staycation rather than drive down to Santa Barbara. My little Mazda3 hatchback gets a cool 35-40mpg on the highway which means a round trip will cost us 17-18 gallons. Even If gas were back around $4 instead of $6, we’d only save about $35 which is a drop in the bucket next to the $1200 in hotel and kennel costs we’d be paying.
The bulk of the cost of driving 660 miles is the wear and tear on our vehicle. At the government rate of 62.5 cents/mile, we can estimate the trip will cost us a little over $412. Of this amount, our gas expense at $6/gallon for 18 gallons adds up to $108. The remaining $304 accounts for the vehicle maintenance and depreciation. While it’s true that expenses such as depreciation, tires, and other repairs don’t need to be paid immediately, the bill will eventually come due and that day will come sooner by driving over 650 miles for a vacation.
We also considered whether a trip by train would make sense and found tickets that cost a little over $300 for our family. The tickets seem pricey upfront compared to the $108 we’d spend on gas but compared to the total cost of driving it is surprisingly affordable. When factoring in the total cost of travel by car, a train trip could actually make for a fun trip at a comparable cost.
Benefit of the Bay Area as our backyard
Once I budgeted the SoCal trip and realized that a three-night vacation would cost us about $1500 before any dining costs, I began thinking how far our budget would go for a staycation. While there are a number of local parks and free activities around here that we could do, I wanted to make this a compelling alternative to vacationing down in Santa Barbara or San Diego. So instead, I looked up some of the most exciting museums and best beaches in the area to make a highlight of activities and came up with the following four-day itinerary.
- Day 1 – Go to the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park in the morning. Grab lunch in the city and swing by ocean beach before driving back home to beat rush hour.
- Cost: Two tickets @$38.50 (kids under 2 are free) plus 75 miles of driving
- Day 2 – Go down to Santa Cruz for a beach day
- Cost: $20 parking and 175 miles of driving
- Day 3 – After two busy days we decide for a more relaxing day biking the Carquinez Straight in the morning and going to a community pool in the afternoon
- Cost: $12 for pool admission for two adults and 20 miles of driving throughout the day
- Day 4 – Travel to Monterey to visit the Aquarium
- Cost: Two tickets @$50 (kids under 4 are free) plus 250 miles of driving
In total this four-day itinerary would cost only $209 in tickets and parking plus $325 in travel costs for the 520 miles of driving over those four days. This comes to a total cost of $534, which is about $1000 less than the beach trip we considered. Despite saving $1000, it doesn’t feel like we’re having to make much of a compromise. We’re still able to get our beach time (albeit with colder water) and we’re also able to tack on some amazing museums all while coming in under budget and with less total travel time. It’s not even as if the activities I chose are the only options in the area. There are a number of different activities I could have chosen from that are all within a two-hour drive. I could have chosen to:
- Go to one of the other amazing museums in SF
- Visit the coastal town of Half Moon Bay
- Travel to the state capital of Sacramento
- Explore San Jose
- Take a trip up wine country in Napa or Sonoma
- Walk through towering redwoods in one of the many state parks such as Armstrong Redwoods State Park
- Go to one of several amusement parks like Six Flags
Financial Decisions Aren’t Easy but Financial Independence is Worth it
Our original beach trip plans only called for budget hotels like a Days Inn and driving a little over five hours each way. It didn’t feel extravagant and had my wife and I not budgeted out the trip, we wouldn’t have realized how much of a difference a staycation could make to our finances. But I’m glad we did. We’re actually a bit behind in funding our yearly contributions to our retirement accounts and this was the perfect gut check for our savings plan. Saving, especially after stretching to purchase a home in a HCOL area, is something that we have to actively work to accomplish.
Stretching ourselves with a house that was four and a half times our annual income is about as far as we’d feel comfortable extending ourselves. Going past five times our gross income would likely make it tougher to sleep at night as Financial Samurai has noted. However, I believe stretching a bit was worth it because we do expect our income to increase after I complete my graduate degree and our move allowed us to get a home that better fits our family needs. While it is a bit tougher financially in the short term, it’s a lot easier to cut our discretionary travel expenses here in the Bay Area than back in Wisconsin. There are so many more interesting day trips within a two-hour radius that we don’t feel as if we’re giving up as much when we cut out a potential trip from our budget.
Overall, I’m really excited with our decision to postpone our SoCal beach trip for another day. Postponing the trip gives us the financial flexibility to consider other trips this winter while investing at much better valuations thanks to recent drops in the stock market.
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